Democracy Dies in Darkness

Fact Checker | Analysis

President Trump's claim that illegal immigration is down 64 percent because of his administration

By Michelle Ye Hee Lee

April 11, 2017 at 3:00 AM

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

"Last month, we saw a 64 percent reduction in illegal immigration on our southern border."
— President Trump, weekly address, April 7, 2017

"My administration is — just a matter of weeks, literally, a short period of time — has brought record reductions to illegal immigration. Record reductions. Down 61 percent since inauguration. General Kelly is doing a fantastic job."
— Trump, remarks at North America's Building Trades Unions conference, April 4, 2017

"You see what's happened: 61 percent down now in terms of illegal people coming in. Way, way down in terms of drugs pouring into our country and poisoning our youth. Way down. General Kelly has done a great job."
— Trump, remarks at CEO Town Hall on Unleashing American Business, April 4, 2017

"I go to these arenas that have signs all over the place — 'He's kept his promise, he's kept his promise' — because I've done a lot of work. The border is in the best shape it's been in, in decades. Down 61 percent since the inauguration."
— Trump, remarks at National Republican Congressional Committee dinner, March 21, 2017

President Trump is repeatedly touting reductions in apprehensions at the Southwestern border, attributing the decline to his administration and the leadership of Department of Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly.

Trump also claimed that "drugs pouring into our country and poisoning our youth" are "way, way down." We don't know if that is accurate. We repeatedly requested 2017 data of drug seizures at the border from Customs and Border Protection since Trump made the claim, but still have not received a response. The White House didn't provide data, either. We will return to that claim when CBP provides us the data.

So for now, we dug into Trump's use of the 64 percent and 61 percent figures. The figure is correct, but it requires some caveats. Here's what we found.

The Facts

First, some context. Southwest border apprehensions have steadily declined since their peak at more than 1.6 million people in fiscal 2000. There have been temporary spikes since 2000 — most recently, there was an uptick in apprehensions of unaccompanied children and their families in 2016, after a significant drop in 2015. Those apprehensions in 2016 were back to 2014 levels, during the height of the flow of Central American migrants illegally crossing the border.

These families and children are fleeing rampant violence and crime in a region called the Northern Triangle, comprising Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Many of the Central American migrants turn themselves in to Border Patrol once they reach the southwest border, seeking asylum status.

This represents a shift in border migration. The number of Mexicans caught trying to cross the border illegally is dropping (more than 400,000 in fiscal 2010 to about 177,000 in 2016), The Washington Post reported. The number of migrants from the Northern Triangle nearly quadrupled in the same period to almost 179,000.

March 2017 total apprehensions were, indeed, very low. It's the lowest monthly number CBP has reported since at least 2000. The 64 percent figure he uses is the total number of people apprehended or "deemed inadmissible" at the southwest border in March 2017 (16,600), compared to the total number in March 2016 (46,150).

The 61 percent figure Trump is referring to is the drop in just the Southwest border apprehensions from January 2017 (31,577) to March 2017 (12,193). A 61 percent drop over three months is dramatic, as Trump indicates. But the January data is a total for the month, not since Inauguration Day on Jan. 20 — so the majority of the month's data predated his presidency.

Actually, the best apples-to-apples measure would be to compare the number of people apprehended or deemed inadmissible for February and March of 2016 with February and March of 2017. That calculation shows there was a 52.4 percent (40,170) decrease in 2017 compared to 2016 (84,466). This would be a more accurate look at the impact of Trump's policy changes to date, rather than focusing on just the month of March.

Still, experts caution against putting too much emphasis on the annual, quarterly or monthly numbers, because immigration trends are about flows, not raw numbers. But what is notable about recent apprehensions is that it doesn't fit the seasonal trends. Usually, there's a seasonal lull through winter months, before apprehensions start climbing back up. Apprehensions tend to peak from March to May, before coming back down in the late summer and through the fall.

But in fall 2016, there was an increase in apprehensions, despite the seasonal norm. You can see this increase in the bright blue line of 2016 apprehensions in the graphic below. Apprehensions start to increase in July 2016, and through October (see the red line for fiscal 2017), and peak in November 2016. Then apprehensions start falling from November to March. Looking at the red line in the graphic, it's clear that the downward trend in 2017 so far is different and more drastic than any other year since 2002.

(Data from Customs and Border Protection)

What does this all mean? Why was there an increase in apprehensions leading up to November 2016, the month of the U.S. presidential election? Why did it start to decline after the election, and so drastically into March? Experts say Trump's rhetoric on immigration made a difference.

On-the-ground reactions to federal level immigration policies, such as Trump's executive orders cracking down on illegal immigration, take some time to materialize. But the apparent rush to enter the country before the election indicates people sensed immigration attitudes and policies could drastically change if Trump were elected, said Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center.

"There's been a clear and marked decrease in unauthorized border crossings. That's really undeniable," Wilson said. "How much of that is due to policy changes versus rhetoric? It's not really easy to answer that question. My sense is that what we've really seen so far, the big change, has been around rhetoric, communicating. It's been about messaging, and that's worked, essentially. Potential migrants are convinced that this is a difficult time to come to the United States, and they have not been coming."

Still, violence continues to escalate in the Northern Triangle in Central America. In the past two years, Mexico and the United States have both turned away comparable flows of northbound Central American refugees and asylum seekers. That means it's unclear how long this downward trend will last. Our friends at PolitiFact found that smugglers may be waiting to find a new route into the United States.

In 2015, then-DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson declared apprehensions were at record lows because of measures his agency had taken to respond to the 2014 influx of Central Americans. (We gave him Two Pinocchios at the time.) As we've seen, the Central American crisis continued to persist, leading to a spike in apprehensions the following year. So the reductions in 2015 under Johnson didn't last long.

The Pinocchio Test

Trump is citing a documented figure that the total number of apprehensions and people "deemed inadmissible" at the Southwest border declined by 64 percent in March 2017 compared to March 2016, and that there was a 61 percent reduction in Southwest border apprehensions from January 2017 to March 2017.

The number of people apprehended or deemed admissible tend to start climbing in March, yet the number continued to decline in March 2017. That shows how uncharacteristically low the flow over the border has been in March 2017. The 61 percent figure also is unique because such a reduction over three months is quite dramatic and bucks seasonal trends. Total apprehensions in March 2017 were the lowest monthly total since at least 2000.

But his use of the data still lacks some context. Trump says the 61 percent reduction began since Inauguration Day, or Jan. 20. But the January data is a total for the month, so the majority of the data predates his presidency.

As we noted, the most accurate figure would compare February and March of 2016 with those months for 2017. That shows a decrease of 52.4 percent, which is still substantial. Trump's rhetoric during the presidential campaign against illegal immigration and border crossings likely resonated with northbound migrants, experts say.

Yet it's unclear what role Trump's immigration actions as president had, or what role Kelly (who was confirmed on Inauguration Day) had in bringing those figures down. And it's too early for Trump to declare he kept his promise; we don't know whether this is the new normal, or a temporary change.

One Pinocchio

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Michelle Ye Hee Lee is a national political enterprise and investigations reporter for The Washington Post.

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